Co-founder of area ski team stays active at age 93

After playing a round of golf and then going to the YMCA in Willmar for a workout, Leland Juhl apologizes for being “a little out of breath” while conversing over the phone.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was just exercising on a machine here.”

Leland Juhl, age 93, went water skiing on Green Lake in Spicer, on Sept. 3, 2017. Leland was one of the founders of the New London water show in the ‘50s. He has remained active throughout his retirement years. Contributed photo

And that was just a typical morning for Juhl, a New London native who still lives in a home on Green Lake in Spicer in the summer and the rest of the year resides in Loma Linda, Calif.

While this might seem like a full day to a 23-year-old, it’s nothing unusual for Juhl, who turned 93 in May.

Leland is well known around the New London and Spicer areas for his many business ventures there.

He was co-founder of a ski team that performed at the Mill Pond in downtown New London in 1958.

That ski team eventually evolved into the nationally renowned Little Crow Ski Team that has won awards for excellence in nearly every event they compete in, as well as entertaining crowds at various locations.

Leland used to be one of the performers of the original ski team, although the number of members was much lower, and the tricks they performed were modest in comparison to today’s pyramids, jumps and flips.

And he hasn’t stopped being active since those days.

Leland and his wife Alice have been married for 71 years. Four months a year, they trek back to Minnesota and share a townhouse overlooking Green Lake in the Spicer city limits with his son, Larry, and his daughter-on-law, Paula.

Although Leland is 93 years old, there is little doubt that a carnival barker who guesses people’s age would stand a chance trying to ascertain his age. He looks and acts like someone 20 or 30 years his junior.

“The Lord has been good to me,” Leland said when asked his secret for looking and staying so healthy. “I try to stay active and drink a lot of water. I’ve never smoked, and I try to eat healthy, except for this …”

Leland Juhl shows the candy that he makes himself, featuring dark chocolate, almonds and marshmallows. Photo by Scott Thoma

He then pointed to a crystal dish holding dark chocolate candy that he makes himself using almonds and marshmallows.

“He also makes the best bread you’ve ever tasted,” said Leland’s daughter-in-law, Paula Juhl. “I think his secret (to staying young) is that he is always funny and constantly telling jokes. He always seems to find something to laugh about.”

Juhl explained that his father had seven children and wasn’t doing well on the farm, but he “always stayed positive and made others laugh.”

Intelligent and articulate, Juhl is equally sharp mentally and physically.

“He is at the same weight he was when he went into the Army in Word War II,” said Larry. “He really tries to stay in shape. He is extremely sociable and loves people. We don’t realize how lucky we are that he is able to do so many things yet at his age.”

On Sept. 3, just a few days before he would say goodbye to Minnesota and return to California, Juhl got back on skis.

“He was going to try a couple of years ago, but the water was so rough,” said Larry Juhl. “So he said he would like to try again.”

All three of his children, Larry, Cheryl and James, as well as three of his four grandchildren, were present that day. Cheryl now lives in California, and James resides in North Carolina. Larry and Paula live eight months a year in Arizona.

It had been many years since Leland last skidded across the water on skis.

“The last time I remember skiing was when my wife and I skied around Green Lake holding hands,” he said, breifly looking downward to keep his emotions in check.

Like riding a bicycle, Juhl was soon back on his feet gliding across the water like he had turned back the calendar to the days of skiing in the water show.

“It only took me two tries to get up,” he said, flashing his infectious smile. “That’s not too bad.”

Although he was only on the skis for approximately one-half mile, the breeze ruffling his hair and the water spraying across his face felt like old times. And his family members all cheered for his accomplishment.

“It was fun to get out there again,” he said. “I like the feeling of being in control of what you’re doing. I wasn’t out long, but I enjoyed it.”

Leland Juhl was co-founder of what would later become the Little Crow Ski Team. He couldn’t find any photos of himself during that time, but did find this picture of his daughter Cheri, who was 3 at the time. This was the very first act of the very first water ski show on the Mill Pond in New London. Contributed

Juhl used to ski often in his younger days. When Dr. Wendell Ford, an avid skier, moved to town from Nebraska, he suggested having a ski show as part of the Water Days town celebration in the early 1950s, and Juhl got involved.

“We only pulled a couple of skiers at a time,” said Juhl. “It wasn’t anything big because we didn’t have big enough motors then to pull more people.”

About the time Ford left town, the show went on hiatus. But Juhl and Dick Johnson rekindled the ski show. They had a large ramp constructed at the Mill Pond for ski jumps, got several people to become involved, and promoted the return of the ski show.

“I drove the boat the first year, and I remember we had a 70 horsepower Mercury motor and a 15-foot glass boat. We had jumps and slalom skiing. My daughter, Cheryl, who was only 3 years old at the time, carried the flag to start the show (while being pulled on a surfboard over the water). There were several thousand people at that first show.”

With the bigger motor, four skiers were able to make the jump over the ramp at the same time. One of those was Larry Juhl, then 11 years old. Eventually, the boat and motor increased in size and so, too, did the show.

Leland became one of the skiers in the show and recalled one humorous night.

“I put a smoke bomb in my back pocket so when I was skiing, I would have a trail of smoke,” he laughed. “But all it did was burn my hind end.”

Juhl has had an eventful life, first as a medical technician in World War II in which he was stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines.

On Nov. 1, 1944, Juhl and an officer were approximately 50 yards away from the U.S.S. Abner Reed, a destroyer patrolling the Gulf of Leyte, an eastern region of the Philippine Islands.

The Japanese launched kamikaze attacks in an attempt to thwart the U.S. ships. One Japanese plane burst into flames when it was hit by a gunner aboard the Abner Reed. But before it crashed, a bomb was released, and it dropped into one of the ship’s stacks and exploded in the engine room. The plane, meanwhile, came down diagonally across the ship’s main deck, setting fire to the entire section.

The ship lost water pressure, making firefighting efforts impossible. Soon, an internal explosion occurred, and the ship eventually sank. All but 22 of the 336 aboard were rescued.

“We found out later that the Air Force had stored fuel in a pit between us and the ship, and if the bomb had hit that, I wouldn’t be here today,” Juhl told.

After serving in the military, Juhl then attended college in Walla Walla, Wash., and became a registered X-ray and lab technologist for a hospital in Boulder, Colo., and then at a clinic in Wayzata for three years until 1952.

“We then decided to move out west again,” said Juhl. “But a brother-in-law was a doctor at the clinic in New London and told me about an opening there. It wasn’t what I meant by moving out west, but it was west of where I was before.”

Juhl took the job and spent over 35 years there before retiring in 1988. Alice was a registered nurse at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar.

In 1964, while he was still at the New London Clinic, Juhl and Dr. Jack Guy built and co-owned the Glen Oaks Nursing Home in New London. Juhl became the licensed administrator. Eventually he sold his stock to Larry and Paula.

“It stayed in the family for 40 years,” Leland said proudly.

Juhl also was one of the original stockholders of Little Crow Country Club in 1969.

Juhl now tries to stay in shape by golfing twice a week in California, walking a mile a day, and exercising five times a week.

Leland Juhl shows off the golf stroke that allows him to still play the game well at age 93. Photo by Scott Thoma

Although he doesn’t play 18 holes to accurately gauge if he can shoot his age, he still shoots in the mid-40s for nine holes, which averaged out, would indeed be a few strokes below 93. In his last round this summer at Little Crow Country Club, Juhl shot a 44.

“I’ve always loved to play golf,” he said, showing his fluid stroke in the back yard of his summer home. “It can be a frustrating sport at times, but that’s all a part of it. You just go out the next time and try to do better.”

Juhl did have a scare last summer when he experienced tightness in his chest and was airlifted to St. Cloud, where he had four stents put in.

“They knew I was doing okay when I asked them when I could play golf again,” Juhl chuckled. “So when they released me, they made sure to write on my papers ‘No golf for eight days.’”

You can’t keep a good man down too long.